Sunday's terrific concert by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra was a smartly scripted affair: Game orchestra meets two superb soloists (pianist Jon Nakamatsu, clarinetist Jon Manasse) for a non-cookie-cutter program of old and new works. Add in the homecoming aspect (Nakamatsu is from the South Bay) and the enthusiasm of the sold-out crowd and, hey, this was a program that should have repeated a couple of times, at least.
It didn't, and it won't, though Nakamatsu and Manasse -- a touring duo since 2004 -- will return to the South Bay in March for their own program at the Montalvo Arts Center. As for Sunday's show at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose, well, 340 people were lucky to have been there. It started with Nakamatsu and Manasse on stage and ended with the duo at center stage once again. Conceived and conducted by music director Barbara Day Turner, the night was a series of musical highs and of symmetry.
It began with a world premiere: Pleasanton-based composer Michael Touchi's "Gallarda."
Mathematically-minded Touchi describes it as "a covariance for clarinet and piano with bass clarinet, timpani and strings." But this work of dancing lyricism is basically a double concerto, composed for Manasse and Nakamatsu, who played with fire and finesse throughout its 17 minutes. As ballast, Touchi has given special prominence to bass clarinet (the excellent Karla Avila) and timpani (Mark Veregge, among the Bay Area's best percussionists).
Those instruments toll the work's opening; a hint of foreboding. But the piece soon jumps into dance mode: "Gallarda" refers to a Spanish dance of the 16th and 17th centuries, and Touchi here explores a flamenco "siguiriyas" rhythm: a 12-beat cycle that dips and sways, leaps and surges.
Seamlessly composed with quicksilver clarinet-piano passages, reflective piano interludes where time nearly stops, and a steady varying of instrumental combinations and effects through the ensemble, the piece maintains its advance. Toward the end of Sunday's performance, with each successive harmonic modulation, there was an uptick of excitement, as if Day Turner and her orchestra were a dance troupe climbing a grand stairway in a movie by Almodóvar.
Touchi's exciting work was followed by Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
As Day Turner set a brisk tempo for the Allegro, Manasse began his playful and pleasure-filled performance, feinting toward the strings, practically flirting with them -- like a puckish character in a Mozart opera.
The former principal with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he is a technically commanding and charismatic musician with a spacious sense of phrasing and a tone that moves from smoky to silken. His down-winding lines through the Adagio were melancholy and hovering, almost weightless, like a hummingbird. Then he and the orchestra went roller-coastering through the Rondo Allegro, and again there was that sense of upticking excitement, heading toward the finish line.
The best came last, however, as Nakamatsu returned for Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2. The pianist can dazzle with the smallest gestures: a trill, or a chord that emerges as if he were strumming a harp. His touch, the balance between his hands, his supersonic chordal sequences; they were impeccable, and expressively offered.
The performance was at its loveliest during the Allegro Scherzando, when Nakamatsu's lines went streaming and waltzing amid the fizzy verve of the orchestra, which played with impressive confidence and charm. The pianist's ironclad pyrotechnics in the finale were over-the-top, but this is an over-the-top piece. Some might call it tacky. This listener calls it fun.
As an encore, Nakamatsu and Manasse played an elaborate arrangement of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." A showstopper, it was dedicated to audience members Nancy and Ken Wiener, longtime supporters of the orchestra. Straight through to the Champagne reception, they underwrote the program as a way of celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
Jon Nakamatsu-Jon Manasse Duo
When: 7:30 p.m. March 27
Where: Carriage House Theatre, Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga
Tickets: $55-$60; 408-961-5858, www.montalvoarts.org